Song of the primates: one woman's mission to save Malaysia's gibbons

Mariani Ramli is working to rescue and rehabilitate these small apes, known for their musical abilities

Mariani Ramli is the founder of the Gibbon Conservation Society Malaysia. Courtesy Mariani Ramli
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Mariani Ramli has a special place in her heart for gibbons.

The founder of the Gibbon Conservation Society Malaysia is committed to protecting these monogamous primates, which are found in Malaysia's ancient rainforests and are known for their singing abilities, which they use to attract mates, as well as to mark territory.

Gibbons are known for their singing abilities, which they use to attract mates and mark territory. Courtesy Jacob Emerson / Gibbon Conservation Society Malaysia

The endangered gibbons of Malaysia

Their cute looks and musical talent make these "small apes" a prime target for poachers, who trap juvenile gibbons by tracking their sounds, and then trade them on the illegal pets market. Audaciously, the poachers get away with advertising on social media because they cannot be charged unless they are found with trapped wild animals in their possession.

There are five species of gibbons found in Malaysia and all are considered endangered. The threat comes from not only poaching, but also increasing an loss of habitat.

In the process of trying to protect trapped juveniles, other gibbon family members are regularly killed by poachers. And, often, the small animals do not survive the harsh journey away from their familiar habitats. Only one in every 20 kidnapped gibbon makes it alive to the hands of the final buyer, and the owners (many of whom are celebrities) don’t always know how to care for them. Baby gibbons that have been separated from their families are severely traumatised, even if they are rescued by the authorities, and need personal care.

The monogamous primates, also called 'small apes', are considered an endangered species. Courtesy Justin Mott / Kindred Guardians

The birth of the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project

That is where Ramli, known as Bam to friends, steps in. At the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, which is part of the Gibbon Conservation Society Malaysia, she works with volunteers to rescue and reorient such gibbons – a process that can take between seven and 10 years, she says – before they can be sent back to the forest.

"I love working with gibbons because of the emotional connection I feel when handling them. I see them as I see other human beings," she says.

Ramli holds a degree in animal biology and was a ranger with the Malaysian Wildlife Department for more than 10 years, before she got a chance to work with gibbons on a project funded by the Copenhagen Zoo. Her first encounter with Ellek – Ramli has named all the gibbons she works with – in 2007 spurred her to travel to other countries and study gibbon conservation and rehabilitation.

It can take years for gibbons to be safely rehabilitated into the wild. Courtesy Justin Mott / Kindred Guardians

She did not know then why Ellek was always so restless and listless. "I had only a broad understanding about conservation then; I thought you just need to feed them and that was all it took," she admits.

Ellek eventually died from an infection, but Ramli’s work with gibbons continued after she took a brief break to grieve.

“I feel responsible to help gibbons, especially when I know that they have been abused by my fellow humans,” she says. “I blamed myself when Ellek died, and decided to research more into how I can help gibbons.”

'The gardeners of the jungle'

She formally started the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in 2013, with the help of the wildlife department, which has conducted communication campaigns encouraging people to voluntarily surrender their pet gibbons.

I feel responsible to help gibbons, especially when I know that they have been abused by my fellow humans

Most of these rescued gibbons were in a bad state – Daru, Daly and Bella among them – exhibiting signs of unruliness and agitation, much like Ellek. Ramli describes this as zoochosis, meaning unusual behaviour from animals unable to cope with their captive environments.

Rehabilitating gibbons, fondly referred to as "students" by Ramli’s small volunteer team, is a long and slow process. The team follows international guidelines for rehabilitation; they are foster mothers as opposed to mere caretakers, especially for very young gibbons. Each gibbon needs to fulfil seven criteria of physical and mental well-being before they can be released back into the wild.

Being with human beings changes these animals significantly. This means that rewilding starts with basics, such as teaching them how to socialise with other gibbons.

“They begin to think of themselves as human,” Ramli explains. “There are so many small things we need to fix, right from training them on how to eat and drink in the wild when they don’t have bowls or bottles.

Baby gibbons that have been separated from their families can become severely traumatised. Courtesy Mariani Ramli

"We also need to fix their biological clock, because they are naturally diurnal, not nocturnal. But because they have learnt to stay up in the night – playing with and entertaining their human owners when they came back from work – and sleep during the day when their owners went to work, it can be dangerous for them in the wild if they continue this pattern..”

Just arming these trusting primates with the basic skills to survive back in the wild can take many years of patient and sensitive training.

According to Ramli, gibbons are very intelligent apes and have a high IQ and EQ. One of their most important roles in the forest ecosystem involves seed dispersal, since they roam over large territories and drop seeds over long distances.

“They are like the gardeners of the jungle, they keep the forest healthy and flourishing,” she says.

As of now, Ramli is fighting several battles – trying to get back these apes, raising her voice against poaching and drumming up public support for gibbon conservancy through talks in schools and through communication campaigns. She has received death threats since she began calling out the exotic pet trade in the country. But this gibbon champion remains undeterred.